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News | Sept. 9, 2022

773d CES gives Arctic Valley star new lights

By Airman 1st Class Shelimar Rivera Rosado JBER Public Affairs

When Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base merged in 2010, the 773d Civil Engineer Squadron inherited the responsibility of maintaining the star that illuminates Anchorage's dark winter nights. 

Every year, members of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s 773d CES are tasked with performing maintenance work and renovations required on the 300-foot-wide star that sits at the edge of Mount Gordon Lyon. This year, an entirely new system is being put in place that will ease the burden of maintenance and troubleshooting, as well as the installation of new lights that will breathe new life into the star.

“We put in rope lights out of centrally-located junction boxes so that we can see the star with two runs per section. If a leg is dimmer, you know you’re missing a rope,” said Preston Murfin, the interior electrical work lead and designer of the new plans for the star.

The older design was illuminated by string lights, similar to those of Christmas trees, that were elevated above the ground by metal poles. The weight of the snow caused the electrical connections to come apart. The solution to this issue was to limit the connection points by adding rope lights and only making connections in junction boxes. 

Murfin’s new design also included elevating the junction boxes in the star, giving the crew easier access to make repairs once the snow begins accumulating.

The star sits at 4,000 feet above sea level, making the maintenance challenging during the severe Alaska winters. For this reason, the team of Airmen and civilians who visit the site each year is made up of volunteers who are aware of the difficulties and dangers they may encounter.

“Last year we had two incidents that were very public where we had the star go out completely,” said Murfin. “We had crews go up in the snow in the winter, in sub-zero temperatures. And then that repair ended up running into issues because we got additional snow and it put pressure on the wires and caused the same problem all over again.”

In previous years, the crews needed snowmachines and snow shoes to reach the site where the control boxes are located. The installation of a remote module will enable the star to be turned on and off and will help avoid those hazards.

“They put in a remote module with a transmitter/receiver and it allows them from right across the street to hit a switch. For it to properly work they need a direct line of sight,” said Murfin.

The 773d CES works on the star for a period of two weeks at the beginning of September, ensuring that everything is in functioning order before it is lit up.

The star is first illuminated on Sept. 11 for a single night in remembrance of the events of 2001, and subsequently on the day following Thanksgiving to signal the start of the holiday season. It will continue until the final musher crosses under the burled arch in Nome at the end of the Iditarod.

The 773d CES is the proud custodian of this holiday tradition, which began in 1958 when U.S. Army commander Capt. Douglas Evert placed a 15-foot lighted star on top of the gatehouse at the Nike Missile Site Summit on the mountain. In 1970 the star was expanded to 117 feet, making it visible from Anchorage, and again in 1989 to its present size. 

“I have two sons of my own and they love seeing the star every morning,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Logan Hall, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the exterior section of the electrical shop. “My one son goes to school in Eagle River, so both kids get to see it every morning on their trip and I get to tell them I help keep that light on.”